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What Is Greenwashing, And How Can Brands Avoid It?

You may have heard of the term ‘greenwashing’ in passing but perhaps you’ve never really considered it or questioned what it means.

What Is Greenwashing, And How Can Brands Avoid It?

You may have heard of the term ‘greenwashing’ in passing but perhaps you’ve never really considered it or questioned what it means.

Simply put, greenwashing is the process of marketing something as eco-friendly, green, or sustainable when it is actually none of these things. It’s not good.

Growing urgency and attention to the climate crisis is meaning that people are starting to pay more attention to companies’ sustainability practices, and this is clearly seen to be influencing their decisions as a consumer.

As a result, greenwashing has become an easy way for companies to take advantage of this awareness for their own gain, without actually taking any action to become more sustainable – getting all of the kudos but without doing any of the work!

Where are we seeing this happen?

Greenwashing is becoming increasingly common, with brands misleadingly, or even falsely, labelling products as ‘sustainable’ or ‘recyclable’ to appeal to their environmentally-conscious younger audiences. It is a valuable move for brands and influencers, particularly in Britain – with 45% of 18-24-year-olds in Britain saying that environmental issues are one of the nation’s most pressing issues.

Many fast fashion brands and retailers are also guilty of greenwashing. Most notably, H&M has a lawsuit filed against it for its misleading claims of sustainability and the use of recycled materials. While H&M was rightfully exposed, it still brings into question the legitimacy of the sustainability claims of other fashion brands and raises a point about the importance of transparency between companies and consumers when discussing sustainability.

Oil companies are also starting to take advantage of ‘green’ lingo in their advertising, claiming that offsetting schemes justify their use of ‘carbon-neutral’, despite their emissions not changing at all. It is fast becoming a slippery slope and may mean that consumers start to feel less guilt around using petrol or diesel cars because “it’s fine, the fuel is carbon neutral!” - when this isn’t really the case, and its use is still damaging to the environment. Don’t be fooled. A few carefully chosen and appealing ‘green’ words won’t suddenly change the impact that some products are having on the climate.

What is being done about it?

The good news is that there is a growing awareness of greenwashing with more action being taken to stop it. It is clear that this is a very vital step with a study showing that 40% of green claims made online may be misleading.

Increasingly, governments are cracking down on greenwashing in an effort to avoid consumers being misled and take greenwashing seriously.

In 2021 the UK created the ‘Green Claims Code’ to help businesses and brands avoid making misleading environmental claims and highlight key principles to comply with the law. The principles are:

  • Claims must be truthful and accurate
  • Claims must be clear and unambiguous
  • Claims must not omit or hide important relevant information
  • Comparisons must be fair and meaningful
  • Claims must consider the full life cycle of the product or service
  • Claims must be substantiated

Any product that claims to be better for the planet must have the science, data and proof to back it up.

How can you spot greenwashing?

You may be wondering how you can spot greenwashing as a consumer. Here are a number of things to look out for.

1. Vague claims, hiding information, and the unsubstantiated use of ‘green’ buzzwords - such as ‘natural’, ‘organic’, ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘sustainable’.

While buzzwords make help a company appear more environmentally friendly they can often be misleading. Find out if the product or services provides any data to back up their claims, for example, have they measured the impact of their entire product or just cherry-picked areas that are easy to measure?

2. Be aware of companies relying on offsets rather than reducing their emissions

Offsets are okay in principle, however, look to avoid companies that use carbon offsetting as a marketing tool instead of using it to reduce their emissions.

Offsets It gives companies a way to claim and label themselves as ‘carbon-neutral’ or sustainable, without really being any of those things in practice.

For example, Heathrow Airport offers consumers the opportunity to spend a certain amount of money to offset the carbon impact of their flight and BP also runs a Target Neutral programme, which funds several offsetting projects. Both of these companies contribute to industries that have a detrimental impact on the climate, and to actually cut emissions they would have to change the way they operate - and prevent the emissions from being released in the first place.

Offsetting can be a convenient way for companies to continue business as usual while appearing to be eco-conscious.

3. Does it do what it says on the ‘tin’?

Sometimes recycling and the way we dispose of things can be a problem. For example, despite what most people may think, coffee cups, both compostable and regular are not recyclable in most places. Compostable cups need to be industrially composted to break down, otherwise, they can actually cause damage to regular plastic that can be recycled.

In 2018, McDonald’s replaced single-use plastic straws with ‘recyclable’ paper straws in a widely-reported move to appear more sustainable – however it was then revealed that the straws weren’t actually recyclable because they get contaminated with your drink.

Just because something is ‘recyclable’ doesn’t mean that it is always easy to recycle or better for the environment.

How can businesses reduce the risk of greenwashing?

As a company, you can avoid greenwashing by considering a few things:

🔢 Data, data, data

Make sure you can back up any claims you are making with substantiated data and avoid making any vague claims. Zevero can help to verify your green credentials and validate any claims.

🎺 Spread your message clearly

Be specific and clear with any words and phrases you use surrounding sustainability - understand what you mean when you say carbon neutral and avoid generic terms such as eco-friendly.

If you need any help with this, Zevero provides a glossary that can help guide you through some key terms. The UK Government also provide a comprehensive green claims checklist on their website.

😇 Be honest

Consumers know that you can’t be perfect, but they will want to know that you care. Be transparent about what you are doing already and also what you will continue to do to improve.

DEYA is a great example of a company who have got their green reporting and communication just right. They provide in-depth information on the environmental cost of their beer, even going so far as putting the carbon footprint of the beer on each label. They are also transparent about their offsetting projects and that reducing their emissions remains their priority.

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